Hi. My name is Jody, and I’m White.
Over the years, this single admission has often felt like an Alcoholics Anonymous confession, a fact about which I can do nothing and for which I am slightly ashamed. I have stood at bus stops in Black neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago, desperately wishing for dreads and dark skin so I wouldn’t stand out so starkly. I have maneuvered the streets of the developing world being greeted with solicitations like “I lofe you, babeee” and “Taxi, madam” because of the color of my skin. I have received unwanted but superior treatment because my skin defines me as a wealthy foreigner.
My Whiteness is something I did not ask for, cannot change, and don’t completely understand. While I haven’t always been aware of the full implications of this trait in a racialized society, living between worlds has pushed me to grapple with my race as a significant shaper of my identity. As I began this process, there was a time when I was ashamed of the privilege I carried, angered and saddened by the history of racial supremacy and discrimination.
My first encounter with my Whiteness was when I participated in an urban studies program on the south side of Chicago. We privileged and White college students lived in a rehab center with recovering drug addicts, all of whom were African Americans from urban Chicago neighborhoods. Completely unaware of the cultural rules by which I operated, I dove into seeking relationship with the residents, eager to learn more about their lives. I asked all sorts of questions and listened eagerly as they shared their stories with me, a naïve rural White girl.
I thought I was maneuvering just fine until one day, a woman approached me and said, “I need to apologize to you. I’ve been avoiding you the whole time you’ve been here.”
I froze inside, wondering what I’d done wrong. People where I came from were rarely so blunt. I thought I’d been so nice—listening, smiling, asking questions. I wasn’t sure how to respond to her bluntness; so I just continued to listen. “You asked so many questions, I felt like you were some journalist pelting me with questions,” she explained. ”It didn’t feel like you really wanted to know me, just like you wanted to use me for my stories.”
I thought I might cry, both from her misinterpretation of my intentions and my lack of understanding about how my actions had been perceived.
“So, I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t give you a chance and just shut down on you instead. It wasn’t very nice of me.”
I stumbled through some sort of response, but mostly I was speechless because I didn’t know what to say. It was the first time I’d come face-to-face with a person whose cultural rules dictated different values than mine, and I hadn’t even known I’d been operating by cultural rules. In my mind, I was just being normal. What I was learning for the first time is that normal isn’t the same for everyone.
Read more about Jody’s story toward understanding and forgiving her own people in her book Pondering Privilege: Toward a deeper understanding of whiteness, race, and faith.